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Inside the Middle Kingdom

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Chinese guardian angel

Every once in a while something happens when we as human beings have a special connection. These moments can traverse cultures and languages and remind us that we all live in a small world and share common experiences and feelings. Recently I had such a special moment and it happened unexpectedly in a taxi cab in Beijing.

My Chinese guardian angel came in the form of a Beijing taxi driver.

Three weeks ago I traveled up to Beijing for a conference and booked a room in a hotel that was tucked way back in a hutong, a narrow alleyway that one can commonly find in Beijing and witness a little of the old world. Little restaurants and street vendors set up shop and customers can enjoy their meal in outdoor seating right there in the alleyway. A community school as well as an old manor with red hanging lanterns and from a time past were also tucked back in my hutong. Hutongs are gradually disappearing as new construction and roads are built in the name of progress. For this reason I wanted the experience of staying in a hutong while I was in Beijing. Problem was, there are still quite a few hutongs all over the massive city of Beijing and most are not marked on regular maps nor accessible by cars. Finding the entrance to any given hutong requires a familiarity with landmarks and shops on the main street where the entrance of a hutong is located. Even the most experienced taxi driver likely may not know exactly where a certain hutong is located let alone understand a foreigner with broken Chinese who also is quite unfamiliar with Beijing. This was the very situation I found myself in when I grabbed a taxi one evening after visiting the Donghuamen night market in Wangfujing near Tianamen Square and wanted to head back to my hutong hotel.

A Beijing hutong
When I initially jumped into the taxi, the driver seemed reluctant to take me. I’d heard stories of many taxi drivers wary of taking foreigners in China because of communication complications. I was determined to get this cab though and showed the name of the location that my friend Felix had penned out for me in Chinese on a scrap of paper. Unfortunately, Felix’s directions didn’t seem to suffice so I told the driver to take me to the nearest subway station, Andingmen. I wanted to make clear to the driver that I would direct him to the hutong from Andingmen but I think the driver thought I just wanted him to drop me off at the subway station and then I would walk. He bellowed out something along the lines of, “I’m not taking you to Andingmen!” and then I argued back and said, “It’s not far. Zou ba!! Go! Go!!! Drive!”

My driver grumbled but took off. I held in my hand my cel phone and tried calling the hotel so that someone there could explain to the driver where he could take me. He said gruffly, “Call the hotel!” It rang and rang. Finally someone picked up on the other end and I handed my cel phone to my driver. A short and terse conversation went on between my driver and the person on the other end of the phone at the hotel. I noticed my driver getting more and more irate and the only part I could understand him emphatically saying was, “She’s alone! She’s alone! I’m not going to drop her off at Andingmen station! She’s alone!” Frustrated, he thrust the phone back in my hand and said something to the effect, “They don’t know anything and are of no help!”

It was then that it dawned on me how thoughtful this man was. As a woman by herself in a strange city, he couldn’t in good conscience just drop me off at the subway station and let me wander and find my way on my own to the hotel. He sincerely was concerned about my safety and wellbeing. I turned to him in my broken Chinese and said, “You are a good person. You don’t want me walking by myself, do you?” He then gave me a look as if to say, “Not on my watch”.

Luckily at that moment, I recognized where we were and saw the shop that was right next to the entrance of the hutong. I called out, “That’s it! That’s it! I know where we are.We’re here!”

With relief my driver pulled over and took a deep sigh. I said, “It’s ok. We found it.” I then turned to him and said, “You’re a father,aren’t you?” At that moment he nodded his head and then gave me a knowing look and I saw in his eyes my own mother saying, “A parent never stops worrying about her or his child, no matter how old she is.” He held up his fingers and made the Chinese sign with his fingers for two and then six. “My daughter is 26.” I smiled at him and told him that I was only a little bit older than his daughter. I thanked him for his kindness and smiled to him for looking after me.

I won’t forget that man and his random act of kindness. No sooner did I get back to my hotel that I phoned my own mother to share the goodwill of the Chinese guardian angel who briefly looked after her daughter.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Where have all my sisters gone?

The mystery of few foreign women living in China explained
As I embark on a second year here in China, I often take a look around me and wonder why I as a Western woman am so underrepresented here.Of the twenty foreign English language teachers working this semester at my university,there are only two of us women, and even then, my fellow female teacher is originally from Nanjing but is now a citizen of New Zealand. Other foreign female teachers I have worked with have also left and returned to their home countries, usually due to unhappiness, loneliness and lack of fulfillment here.Meanwhile, many of my male counterparts have seemingly lived happily here for several years. True- I know it isn’t always a bed of roses for the Western men here but there are still more of them around here. This phenomenon has me and others often scratching our heads wondering why China is perceived as a haven for so many Western men but simultaneously is such a hardship for Western women.

I have heard several thoughts and ideas on this. One was from a Chinese student who occasionally helps me with errands and small tasks.She thought it might be because Western women are not as adventurous as Western men. I also have heard that it could be because we don’t have a lot of the comforts of home- such as cooking ingredients and cooking utensils and make-up.I myself have lamented many times to the point that it’s even comical how impossible it is to buy clothes here especially for a woman of my size. Looking for bras, underwear, and jeans is not even worth my time (In Hong Kong last year, a Guess? store employee suggested I try on men’s jeans). Getting used to the public restrooms here, in particular the squatty potties, is not easily done by all women or men for that matter. It took me an entire month last year before I ventured into one the squat toilet stalls and admittedly it is sometimes a lot to stomach. But in spite of the occasional frustration with lack of clothing options, limitation with food ingredients, and the bathroom situation here, I really have not found it to be a hardship living in this part of China in this day and age. It would be a different story if I lived in a rural area but I live in a very modern, progressive city with a public transportation system that puts that of Seattle, where I used to live, to shame. Living in Nanjing even 10 years ago would have been different but now I really can find a lot of my home comforts and I hardly feel like I am a pioneer women trying to survive in the Wild West. Surely there must be other reasons why Western women are underrepresented here.

Dating here in China might be a tricky issue for single Western women. Indeed this is a new realm that I am adventuring into myself this year and experiencing its challenges. Many of us Western women see our Western brothers show up here in China and within what seems like a week, have a cute Chinese girlfriend by their side. Where can we meet prospective mates other than at our workplaces and Western bars ? That’s not to say that some Western women are not open to dating Chinese men. That is however a lot less common than Western men together with Chinese women. Why is it so uncommon? Blogger Jocelyn Eikenburg, an American women living in China with her Chinese husband and indeed an expert on matters of love and relationships in China attributes this anomaly to some negative stereotypes- such as the unfair geeky portrayal of Asian men in movies. Other reasons could stem from difference in family traditions and expectations Chinese men’s families have for their sons and that Western women may be seen as too modern and progressive. Many Chinese families still hold views that would be conceived as old fashioned now in the West- such as a couple not living together until they get married.

Indeed there are challenges for a Western woman who wants to date here but then again, Chinese women are also experiencing these challenges. More and more Chinese women are getting married later while some also pursue careers over family. A new Chinese acquaintance told me that there is a name for such women- Sheng nu- which means “Left-aside woman”, a term for very well educated women who are financially stable and very accomplished in their careers but are too old or too picky to find a husband and start a family (this is how it was described and explained to me). Also, as far as the difficulties go for dating- whether you’re a Western woman, Western man or Chinese woman or man, don’t most people the world over lament how difficult it is to find a mate and date, no matter where they live? I seem to remember complaining with a girlfriend a few years back that Washington DC was a terrible city for dating and then hearing girlfriends in London complain of the same thing!

But back to the challenges facing Western women living in China. Some of us find it difficult to develop friendships with Chinese- especially Chinese women. My greatest challenge in this factor is my lack of Chinese language skills. Recently I have made some wonderful Chinese friends. However, these friendships are with people who speak English fluently and also have an understanding of the US and my cultural background.Friendships with Chinese people with limited English skills seem very superficial. Of course that’s no one’s fault. Slowly but surely I am meeting more Chinese people and have the odd opportunity here and there to practice my Chinese. As for other Westerners, there are a lot of us around. Meeting other Western women is difficult though if you consider the very problem that we are underrepresented.

Dealing with concerns in the workplace and in daily life in China means a careful balance of patience, charm and assertiveness. When it comes to problem solving,my observation of many Chinese is that they are non-confrontational and they want as little grief as possible. This means that a person you go to with a problem may likely not want to get involved and may try to refer you to someone else. Getting what you want as well as help on a problem requires a little bit of coaxing, apologizing as well as effusive thank-yous. However, this may backfire if you are perceived as too nice because then your problem will likely not be seen as urgent and you may likely be seen as a person who won’t make a big fuss if nothing is done right away. So I have taken the lead of some of my male colleagues and have carefully selected the times I make a stink. I don’t like to make a stink because it is not my way but sometimes it’s necessary. For example, last spring I hadn’t gotten my end of the semester pay after more than a week of turning in my grades while a male colleague got his pay right away. Similarly, I was told I couldn’t use the university’s van when I moved to the other campus even through my male colleagues had been offered this service when they moved. I finally got fed up with the rules magically changing on me when I asked for the same benefits and made a stink and even dared to ask if I was getting different treatment because I was a woman. Low and behold, my stink-making got me the moving van the next day as well as my pay. So I have learned here to be more assertive, a trait that doesn’t come easily to me. Some Western women may feel that they are not taken seriously enough and are the subject of sexism. So it’s understanding that this could be seen as a turn-off for many of my Western sisters and it maybe just another nail in the coffin for them here in China.

Friendly folks await foreign women who would like to seek adventure here in China

Depending on how one looks at it, there are some advantages to being a woman here. Although most of my fellow foreign teachers at work are men, I find that sometimes students are pleasantly surprised to have a foreign female teacher walk in on the first day of class or attend an organized speaking or cultural event. Maybe we are perceived sometimes as kinder, gentler and more patient. Many Chinese families,for example, prefer to have female native English speakers tutor their children in English on the weekends. For example, last week I got a phone call from a student whose teacher was looking for a tutor for his 11 year old daughter. I told him that although I wouldn’t have time to tutor the professor’s daughter,they should ask the foreign affairs office to send out an email to the other teachers. Soon after I got a polite email from the students thanking me for the suggestion but his professor was really only looking for a female teacher and I was the only option at our university. So interestingly enough, being a woman seems to be an appealing factor to families because we may be seen as gentler and more benign. This is not to say that my Western male counterparts are not gentle and patient but women seem to be seen as more approachable here.

As a woman here, I also feel incredibly safe. At times I stay out late at night, take buses and taxis and walk on streets by myself(Mom, don’t worry, it’s really fine). Sometimes I go to little hole in the wall restaurants to order dumplings. Maybe I’ll get curious looks but nothing where I feel threatened. I feel that my belongings as well as my personal safety are always in check.Language is the only barrier to my safety here but as long as I have an address in Chinese for where I am going and have a phone and dictionary with me, I feel the world is my oyster and I can only discover new things.

It’s true that this is an incredible country to live in in this day and age. There are days I wake up, venture outside, walk around my neighborhood and just watch the show in front of me unfold. The everyday things I see still amuse and fascinate me. Curious looks and friendly children coming up to shake my hand still tickles me pink and leaves me feeling like a minor local celebrity. I sometimes can’t believe my luck in being here and wonder if other Western women who have toughed it out here feel the same way.

I will say that China is not for everyone- whether you are a man or a woman. But if you have a sense of adventure, want to learn to be more patient and assertive, want to get a taste of what it’s like to be a minor celebrity and see things on a daily basis that inspire and awe you, it’s well worth it. I hope that other Western women will come join the ranks here and find out for themselves what China has to offer.

What are your thoughts on why Western and foreign women are underrepresented here in China?

Do you have an inspiring story or tale of living in China or abroad as a woman? As a man?

For interesting related reading:
The decline of Asian marriage: Asia's lonely hearts

On the Rarity of Foreign Women and Chinese Boyfriends/Chinese Husbands

Monday, September 5, 2011

New Beginnings

As I departed and said goodbye to my folks at the Dulles airport in Virginia just a little over a week ago, I hugged extra long, especially with my mom. My parents have seen me depart on countless trips in my life- junior year in college to Germany; a work trip to Russia; a six month stint in England; a cross country trip to move to Seattle and even last year to China. You would think it would become easier each time and I would become immune to teary goodbyes, yet there I was, a grown woman fighting back the tears as I descended down with the escalator and slowly out of sight of my parents. 

This departure shouldn’t have been any different from other departures, particularly since I was returning to a place I already lived. I suppose it marked rather a departure from one period in my life and the move to a new beginning in my life. Although I have returned to China for a second year, it was a somewhat heavy decision made unexpectedly at the end of June and this time I have returned alone to find my way in this guest country as well as in the world.    

After a summer surrounded with family and good friends in the US, I felt mentally ready to return to Nanjing. After the long 24+ hour trip I arrived in Nanjing feeling confident that I had a handle on things. I managed to squeeze onto the airport bus getting the last seat at the very back of the bus and confidently asking my seat mate whether the bus was indeed heading to where I wanted to go. From the bus, I hopped off and hailed a cab and arrived at my new apartment by midnight to be met by my friend Lucy who had already prepped my apartment, bought breakfast food, etc. From there I hopped upstairs to Mike and Tien’s where I could use Skype to call home and was handed a martini. It was a nice feeling to arrive in my home across the world to such welcoming and open arms. 

Living in China second time round is less stressful as I have an idea of what to expect. Living here has taught me to be patient with the way things are here and to not hold my breath about certain things getting done. For example, not having our teaching schedule until the night before the semester began? No problem. Not having internet in my apartment for a few days? I managed. Mopeds and bikes coming from every direction towards me as I cross the street with the right of way? That’s how it is here. 

Still, I fooled myself into thinking I had a complete 100% grasp on things here and that I could manage on my own without relying too much on others for help. Last year I relied too much and too often on Tien to help me at the doctor’s, when I got in a snafu at the supermarket, or with registering for the GRE exam here in China. I guess I was wrong this time to assume though that I could just patiently sit in my new place and things would magically fall into place. I still had to have Tien show me how to get my air conditioner and washing machine functioning and then it took an unexpected teary phone conversation with a friend about computer woes to make me realize that it is okay to reach out to others for support and help. I think this has been the most difficult and eye opening part of my transition here. Still, I have come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t mean I’m “not cutting it” here just because I need that support.

I feel that I am in a good place here both literally and figuratively. I’m slowly working out the little kinks of living in my new apartment and am enjoying the community that lives around this campus. I am now living in the center of Nanjing as opposed to the outskirts of the city where I was last year. Oddly enough, although I am in the heart of Nanjing, I am in very “Chinese” area where I rarely see other foreigners other than the other foreign teachers who live on this campus as well. I occasionally get a curious stare from people as I march to the supermarket, but I don’t mind. In the mornings I sometimes wake up to the gentle music of people doing their stretches and tai chi. Evenings, the campus comes alive with families walking their dogs and grandparents walking their little ones around the athletic track with their tricycles. Right outside the campus are lots of street vendors and small family restaurants selling noodles or dumplings and a local market selling all varieties of produce as well as meat and fish. Although it is all very foreign to me, I don’t think I will ever feel alone or that I am lacking human contact here. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be here and learn about this country as well as myself.

Morning exercises and tai chi

Some produce selection at the local market

Live eels from the fish monger in the market. Any takers?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is that it? Attending a rather uneventful college graduation

Yesterday I attended the graduation ceremony of my friend Felix. Felix became a friend of mine back in March when he started attending my English for Job Applications class as a means to bulk up his English before taking the IELTS exam (it’s an exam non-native English speakers take for admittance into universities in English speaking countries). Over the last couple of months, we’ve become friends as we both found we are both born in the year of the Rabbit and are both Pieces so it goes without saying that we have a good understanding of one another. Felix helped me with some surveys I passed out to students and spent countless hours entering data. Also, when I got into a bind two weeks ago while I was in Shanghai for the GRE exam, he helped talk to the hotel where I was staying when I wasn’t able to get a room there on account that I didn’t have a Chinese national card (and that I’m not Chinese). He helped me figure out how to get to the remote campus for my exam as well as all the necessary details I needed to have smooth sailing on that day. (NOTE TO SELF: Really. Start learning more Chinese to get yourself out of these messes!!!).

Felix (back left) and his friends.

So as I became better friends with Felix and as his impending graduation approached, I asked if his parents would be coming from his hometown near Beijing for the graduation. “Nah, I’ll just see them when I come home the day after. It’s not really a big deal.” Not a big deal??? Now that really baffled me. Firstly, coming from the US, I’m used to graduations being milestone events and sort of rite of passages whether they’re pre-school or graduate school graduations. Secondly, the Chinese toil and work their asses off for three hard years in high school to do well on the Gao Kao, the college entrance exam which pretty much determines the rest of their life (at least in a Chinese person’s eyes). Getting a coveted spot at a university and having a chance at getting a college education means a certain amount of economic security for not only the student but his or her entire family. There is a lot riding on whether a kid attends college in China. So naturally, I would think graduating from college would be a big deal. Not so….

The new graduated pose with their "diplomas"
Felix’s graduation for his major department was at 2 in the afternoon. Apparently there was a graduation for all of the graduates at 10 am in the university’s gym. Felix’s major, Economics, held its graduation in an auditorium in the back of the school library. When I arrived late in true Stephanie fashion, I saw a bunch of students sitting in the lobby with matching t-shirts. I walked into the auditorium to find Felix sitting in his cap and gown a few rows from the back. He apologized that there wasn’t a seat for me. He suggested we take some pictures as we waited for him and his friends to march up and get their degrees. So, click away we did. Some of the rows in the front of the room started marching up to get their diploma. We took some pics with Felix and his roommate William and his friend Tina. Then just like that, Felix had to go march up to the stage. A line of 10 or so professors were sitting at a table on the stage. Ten students at a time would proceed and get their degree, each students lining up in front in front of one of the ten professors who would then hand them their degree. Then they would all stand facing the audience for a quick snapshot and that was it. Meanwhile, sort of Communist-party type of music was playing in the background. As the next group of students was getting ready to proceed up, the previous students who had already gotten their degree had already taken their cap and gown off and were heading out. After Felix got his degree (which wasn’t really his degree. It was just a fake degree that the students held up), he came back to his seat and nonchalantly said, “Well, I better take this cap and gown off. The next group will need this. So, what are you up to now?”

Swapping out caps and gowns.
We walked to the lobby to see the next graduating class waiting and presumably they would get the caps and gowns. We snapped a couple of more pictures and that was that. I asked Felix if there would be any celebrations later. He said that most students would be partying all night as it would be their last time together. Most of the graduating students had been doing just that over the last two weeks- going out into the wee hours of the morning; singing at KTV (Chinese karaoke rooms you can rent); and just soaking up as much fun with one other until the fated day they would all leave and go their separate ways. Felix mentioned that some students were planning to organize a parade around campus at 9 pm. “That’s great!”, I said and glad that there was finally going to be something eventful happening for what I consider to be a very important event. “Yes, but some teachers have found out about it and will now stop it.” Again, taking is very personally, I protested on behalf of the students to Felix and said incredulously, “But why??? It’s just a fun parade to celebrate your accomplishment and do something together before you all leave!?” “Well, you know, these things are not good to put together and organize here in China,” Felix said matter-of-factly and calmly with a look like “That’s just how it is” on his face.

Students' hard work and toil being taken away on a dump truck.
In the end, I think my desire for a graduation with more pomp and circumstance and fanfare is purely selfish. I feel that is what is appropriate for all of the work these students have done to this point. Plus, I’m a very nostalgic person and think back fondly on my own graduations over the years as well as graduations of others that I have attended. I just want Felix and his classmates to have something special to remember, especially before they face the harsh reality of finding a job in a very competitive market and before they face the strict Chinese pressures of getting married, starting a family and supporting their entire extended family. At the end of the day, though, I think Felix and all of his friends and classmates were happy with the quick and brief ceremony as it left more time for them to spend with one another and celebrate their accomplishments together and reminisce about their last four years.

Congratulations to all graduates out there and best wishes as you embark on the next chapter in your lives!

Monday, June 6, 2011

School Days: Part 2

This past week, I was a guest and observer at a local elementary school, Xianlin Primary School. It had been a goal of mine this year to visit and observe at at least one school here in China to get better insight into the education system here. Making such arrangements, however, proved to be harder than I thought. My boss Emy offered back in March to ask whether I could visit her daughter’s school. Unfortunately, they were afraid I would be a big distraction to the children and prevent them from learning. So Emy then asked a friend and professor at NUFE whether I could observe at his daughter’s school. After much back and forth communication between Emy and her friend; her friend and the school; and then finally between me and a teacher, I successfully made arrangements for my desired school visit.

In the US, education reformers and policy makers seem to constantly be ranting about how US schools and learning lag way behind those in other countries. Having spent several in-depth years in public schools in Seattle, Virginia and DC and having worked very closely with learners from Kindergarten through 12th grade, I feel I have some pretty good insight into public education, learning and teaching in the US. Being in China this year has been a big paradigm shift especially when it comes to the way students learn here. Granted I am working with college students, I have nevertheless been challenged many times with the teaching approaches I use. When it comes to getting students to open up and share their opinion or when I try to make my lessons more student-led, as opposed to teacher-led, I sometimes hit a wall. This has led me to wonder whether my college students have been deeply engrained from a young age to learn what is told to them and are not offered many opportunities for self-discovery. I was therefore, curious to visit a primary school to see the practices that are used in the younger formative years of education. Also, perhaps I could learn a thing or two about what is effectively being done in classrooms in China to share with fellow educators in the US.

My school day began at 7:30 when I arrived to meet Ms. Liu, my contact at the school who teaches English to 3rd and 5th graders, both grades I have some experience teaching as well. In China, teachers do not have their own classroom, instead, a class of students has their own room and the teacher arrives at that room when it is time for his or her lesson. Even in primary schools, teachers focus only on one or two subjects. Ms. Liu and her teaching partners were quite surprised when I told them that elementary teachers in the US teach ALL of the subjects. Ms. Liu taught a maximum of 4 lessons on Monday and Fridays and 3 lessons on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That’s right, she taught 17 hours a week. Meanwhile, elementary-teacher counterparts in the US teach at least 35 hours week. Is it any wonder why so many teachers (myself included) burn out so quickly from the teaching profession? 

China's future doing their morning exercises
Ms. Liu took me to her office where some other teachers had their desks. The students had “reading time” until about 8:20 and were in their classrooms completing their homework and preparing for their classes for the coming day. Some students came in and out and one student I saw was scolded by the head teacher since he had repeatedly not been doing his homework. Her scolding didn’t seem particularly harsh but nevertheless the student seemed ashamed enough that he probably would follow through with doing his homework. What also seemed strange was that students just seemed to go on their own accord to their classroom. Some students were out and about playing in the hallways and just being kids, but most of those students seemed to make it eventually to their classrooms. There didn’t seem to be major discipline issues and students just seemed to know what they needed to do. Teachers didn’t even really need to be in the classrooms monitoring the students. Instead, they could use that time to prepare and get ready for their lessons for the day and check-in individually with various students.

At 8:20, the teachers met and lined up on a path by the school field. A few minutes later, the older students marched out and lined up in 5 lines on the school track. The national anthem came blaring out on the speakers and two students raised the Chinese flag. Students then started doing some morning exercises to get energized and ready to learn.

Later that morning, I had the chance to sit in on two English classes in fourth and fifth grade. In China, students are now learning English as young as third grade. English is considered one of the most important pillar subjects in school along with Chinese and Math. In addition to the English kids learn in school during the week, many students get additional tutoring on the weekends. Some students go to private language schools while others may have private tutors (a job I had in the fall here). Why so much emphasis on education and learning, learning, learning all the time? Knowledge and education is seen as the key to success in China. If a child does well in primary school, she will then do well in middle school and then get into a prestigious high school which will ensure she will do well on her college entrance exam, which will ensure she will have a good job in the end in which to support her family. So already at a young age, children are set on the track to future success by working very hard in school and on weekends. 

An engaged 4th grade English lesson
When a teacher entered a classroom, the students all stood up to attention and shouted out, “Laoshi, ni hao! (Hello Teacher)”. Once the teacher responded and acknowledged their greeting, the students sat down. During the course of the 45 minute lessons, the teachers used a curriculum that included a variety of activities to keep the students attentive, energized and on their toes. The activities were fast-paced and moved quickly. Students sang a song using their learned English vocabulary and also had other quick games that tested their knowledge of the vocabulary from their lesson. Sometimes students could consult with their peers at their desk and other times students worked individually. Most students seemed very engaged and involved during the course of the 45 minute lesson.

Attentive students
Art lesson
In the afternoon I enjoyed sitting in on an art lesson in a second grade class. Students had been learning about Peking Opera and the costumes and make-up of both female and male parts. The lesson began with the teacher drawing both a male and female face on the board. Starting with the shape of a head, the teacher gradually added the eyes, nose and mouth and the faces gradually came alive in front of me and the students. The students then went to work drawing their own versions, being precise and accurate while they were at it. The teacher played some Peking opera music in the background as they children worked and their creative juices flowed. It seemed so effortless and easy for the teacher to get the students going.

Twice in the day, the students had an interesting ritual called “Eye massage”. For ten minutes, the students shut their eyes and then massaged around their temples, noses, above and around their eyes. Student monitors came around with clipboards checking and making sure all students were doing their eye exercises which was supposed to help students relax and get rid of any headaches and pressure that would inhibit learning. Although a strange practice, I don’t think I would mind having “Eye massage” time in my classroom in the US!

For the last hour of the day, students cleaned up their classrooms and then got their homework assignments from their teachers. Again, students seemed to go about doing these activities with efficiency and little fuss. I was really quite amazed at how disciplined the students were but also how easily everything seemed to flow and get done. It’s true that the teachers are very well respected and have their place in the school. Nevertheless, the students seemed to have a certain flexibility and freedom to go about doing what they needed to get done. All students seemed to know what was expected of them and what the consequences were for not following through with what was expected of them.

Healthy school lunch- This isn't your corndog and pizza!

Could such a utopian learning environment work in the US? I don’t think it could work so easily. The value of education and it being the key to future success and happiness is so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and history. That’s not to say that education is undervalued in the US. The US on some level has much more complex social issues that play a role and affect a child’s education and future wellbeing. Some of those issues don’t even come into play in China. Additionally, my one glimpse into one primary school here may not be a fair indicator of education and learning in all schools across China. Some drawbacks in China are that students become easily stressed because of their heavy workload and as they get older, they have very little opportunities to participate in creative activities, volunteer opportunities, jobs and other experiences that contribute to a young person’s growth and education. Nevertheless, I think all learners, whether in China or the US, can benefit from teachers who have the time to focus on individual students’ needs as well as being well prepared for the classroom. Neither overworking students nor teachers can sustainably be productive in the long run.

To read some of my previous posts on education, visit:

My 15 Minutes (or 4 hours) of Fame: My experience as a "rented" foreigner

Two weeks ago was my “coming out”, red carpet appearance as the Sales Executive from the Shanghai Cast Wine Company. What, what, what? Some of you may be scratching your heads and thinking, “I thought Stephanie was an English teacher at a university in China…..”. Well yes, that is indeed my day job, but China has offered both Derek and me a range of very unique job opportunities such as starring in a TV show, being a bidder of million dollar art in Beijing and pretending to be a French wine connoisseur and sales executive at the opening of a wine store in Jiang Zemin’s (former President of China) hometown of Jiangdu.
My façade as a French wine dealer began two Fridays ago when I got a text message from Johnny who initially tried to recruit me last fall to attend a similar event back then. I had been too busy in the fall but finally having some time last weekend and being intrigued by the “rent-a-foreigner” concept, I began negotiating my role in this strange business arrangement. Initially Johnny texted that I would simply have to attend a party as a guest the next day. “Very Easy!”, he wrote. As I text-negotiated the arrangement, I learned that I would actually need to arrive in Jiangdu that Friday night. That gradually became a late afternoon departure from Nanjing, but with all travel and accommodation arrangements made by Johnny and the pay I wanted agreed upon, I decided to take the plunge.
The swanky interior of the wine shop
Five hours after the initial text message from Johnny, I was on a bus with him snacking on some KFC and learning about the details of the set-up. Johnny explained that a friend of a friend was opening a wine store in Jiangdu that sold French wine. The wine store would have special clients from the local business community and government. Those special clients would then help promote his store and wine products further in the city and also sell the wine to other customers. For such a store opening, it is customary to show appreciation to your connections by having a big shindig which is also an opportunity to celebrate the store’s opening and have friends, family, and connections wish you luck. As I have mentioned in my last
post, having foreigners at such events shows prestige and puts on an image that a company may even have connections abroad. So that was going to be my role in this entire scheme. Another Western woman had been recruited from Shanghai and I would meet her later in the evening.
With my co-wine "saleswomen", Anna
When Johnny and I arrived in Jiangdu, we were picked up by a man who seemed to be a friend of the owner of the wine store or at least was someone who wanted to impress the owner. We’ll call him Chao. We first checked into our hotel and then there was no time to waste. Not even with a chance to drop my bag off in my room upstairs, Johnny and I were quickly shuttled to the wine store where I was taken upstairs, awkwardly introduced to the owner and his wife and another person (a client?) only to be whisked away a few minutes later to dinner in an adjacent hotel. With Johnny being my only companion in this strange arrangement, I ate dinner with the people I met at the wine store and some other folks in a private room. A poker table was set up in the corner of the room which Chinese people love to play on such company team-building and Guanxi building occasions. I thought I was going to be trapped in the room for hours on end but to my pleasant surprise, I was shuffled back to my hotel room promptly after dinner (although Chao was nowhere to be found and still had my bag in his car). For the next two hours, my planned relaxing evening turned into me researching facts and information about red wine from France and its health benefits. Johnny told me I had to be prepared to say some facts or pretend to be knowledgeable about red wine since I was likely going to be playing a representative from a Shanghai wine exporter. At around 9:30, Chao arrived in my room briefly with Anna, my fellow-foreigner at the event and then whisked her away presumably to take her to the wine store as well. Finally at 10 p.m., we were summoned to the banquet hall where the party would be held the next day. Anna was there waiting with a Chinese woman and I finally got to properly meet her. From Ukraine, Anna was getting her Masters at university in Shanghai and training to be a Chinese language teacher. Not surprisingly, her Chinese was quite fluent. Ironically she was instructed to pretend that she couldn’t speak any Chinese- a part I had no trouble playing. We sat and waited around for the next 45 minutes and finally got instruction that I would be giving a speech in English at the opening of the store the next day and that Anna would be a guest at the event. I offered to write the speech but Johnny said he needed to do it. Finally at 11 pm, Anna and I announced we were going to our rooms and would not be waiting around anymore. The next morning, I found out that Johnny was up until 1 a.m. helping with arrangements and making sure everything was perfect for the big day.
I awoke at 7 a.m. the next morning to the sound of gregarious, drunken wedding guests in the hallway outside my room. I quickly got up and got ready for the big day. I met Johnny in the hotel lobby at 8:20 and went over my role of the day. I would give a short speech in English with a line in Chinese at the opening of the store and then cut the ribbon along with the owner and a couple of other government and business hotshots.

Getting ready for my inaugural speech
At 9 am, Anna, Johnny and I were taken by Chao to the wine store and hung around for the next hour as we waited for our important moment. Pretty Chinese girls dressed in traditional dresses that buttoned up to the neck passed out bottled water to us and other guests and pinned corsages on our dresses. Finally, our moment came and we were summoned outside. A crowd had gathered out in front of the store and curious passerby’s stopped with their children to see the “groundbreaking” event. The owner of the store gave a speech and then came my big moment! I had practiced the speech- especially the Chinese line and read it from a piece of light red paper for luck. As I stepped up to the microphone, there was some moments of awkwardness (which seemed like a full two minutes) as one of the ushers struggled to raise the microphone up to my height (which was only enhanced by the high heels I wore). Finally I gave my speech. My speech went something like this, “Chairman Cheng and esteemed guests. I am from the Shanghai Caste Wine Company. The Caste wine company started in 2000 and now it has moved to Jiangdu for its new home where it will bring much success. In Chinese “Congratulations and wishing you much luck!”. There was a lot of clapping and then the big wigs and I stepped forward to cut the ribbon.
My opening speech
Cutting the ribbon
We were all then driven to the hotel where the banquet was to be held. Anna and I had to sign our name in a guest book (similar to a book that might be at a wedding) and wrote our well-wishes to the company. We spent a few minutes in a conference room where men were smoking and playing poker. Finally we were brought into the banquet room and told to sit at one of the tables in the front of the room. Johnny told us some guests wanted to have their pictures taken with Anna and me so we shuffled our way to the stage for some snapshots. Soon the banquet began. One of the chairmen of the event gave a speech and then I had to give my speech again. But the best part was yet to come. Finally, waitresses came out and poured glasses of white wine for all the guests. The chairmen and another woman gave a short explanation about the wine and how to drink it, practicing such rituals like swishing it around in your mouth before swallowing it. It wasn’t long before many of our Chinese guests were pretty red in the cheeks and starting to get a little tipsy. It didn’t help that there were only plates of pistachios, some sweets and dried squid on table to eat. Eventually, round two came which was a red wine.
Peking opera singer
The guests were quite jovial by then. The entertainment of the event started which included a woman singing a popular song from the Beijing Olympics; and then a cheesy electric violin dancer who was playing Pachebel’s Canon in D to a techno-pop beat and dancing up to some of the guests while she played. However, my favorite performance and the highlight of the banquet for me was the Peking Opera singer (who was not dressed up in costume). Seeing a man on the stage, I was taken aback and quite surprised when a high, shrill, feminine and vibrato-filled voice came out. It was really quite mesmerizing to see him so close and I learned that Jiang Zemin himself is a fan of Peking Opera since it reminds him of his youth. The particular singer at the banquet allegedly performs for Jiang Zemin whenever he is in town for any events. I was touched (probably with the aid of the wine I was drinking) when the singer turned to me after the song and said “Thank you”.
"Guanxi"-ing and "Gan bei"-ing
The rest of the banquet seemed to be a blur. At one point I had to press a button on a computer to pick a winner for the raffle door prize and then hand a gift basket with a bottle of wine to the winner. There were several rounds of food brought out and maybe four rounds of wine poured. Like many Chinese dinners and banquets, guests at different tables were toasting one another, a ritual where everyone at a particular table stands up, wishes each other well and then drinks the rest of what’s in their glass (if people say gan bei which literally means “dry glass” and means “bottoms up!”). Sometimes a guest from one table may make the rounds to another table and toast all the people there and wish them well. This is what Anna and I had to do (all part of our job!). We stopped at the table of Chao who wanted to impress his friends. Drunkenly and in broken English he yelled out with a chuckle, “These are my friends!!” to which Anna and I gave a nod and a polite hello and a clink of the glass (I’m happy to say that he did not drive us to the bus station later).
Finally, at around 1 pm, the banquet was over as quick as it had started. There was no lingering or chit chat for Anna and me. Instead we were quickly shuffled away, picked up our stuff from our hotel and were then taken directly to the bus station. By 2 pm, Johnny and I were back on a bus to Nanjing where we both quickly crashed and fell asleep in our seats from exhaustion.
Would I do one of these events again the future? Probably not. It was pretty easy but also a little bit exhausting being shuffled around and then told to take a picture, toast a guest or say some kind words on cue. Still, Anna did say that it was an interesting glimpse into Chinese culture and the art of how relationships are formed. I definitely feel that it enriched my experience here as a foreigner in China this year. Gan bei!

For another interesting link on “Rent-a-foreigner”:
Farrar, Lara (June 29, 2010). Chinese companies ‘rent’ white foreigners. CNN. Retrieved from

Business the Chinese Way

About a year ago when we first learned that we would be moving to China, a friend in Seattle forwarded us a bizarre story from NPR (a public radio/ news station in the US) about the practice of Westerners being hired as a front in offices of Chinese companies or at certain events. At the time, I thought this was an unusual practice that was probably limited to men. We even joked that Derek could get a job filling in one of the offices of a Chinese company where he could get paid for being there and also get the necessary work done for his own company. But anyway, we figured it was only done in cities such as Beijing or Shanghai and we were not sure how we would be identified for such opportunities. 

A couple of months after we arrived here in China, I was giving an “English corner” presentation at our university about Thanksgiving (the English Corner is a club on campus where English language enthusiasts can get together. The foreign teachers are required to give at least one presentation a year on topics related to life and culture in our countries). Afterwards, I was approached by Johnny, a student in his last year or study at NUFE who was helping a friend of a friend working for a wine company selling imported wine. Said company was going to be organizing an event in a small city two hours from Nanjing at which important local government officials and business people would be attending.  Johnny started aggressively recruiting me and Mechtthild, a friend of mine from Germany, to attend the event. We were told we would just have to dress professionally, show up and drink wine (sounded easy enough!). However, neither Mechtthild nor I could attend as we both had teaching commitments that day (which Johnny encouraged us to cancel but we couldn’t). 

When Mecththild was first explained about the arrangement, she kept asking me on the side why they wanted us, random Western women, to attend. I explained from my own limited understanding that it was a status symbol for Westerners to attend such events and it brought a certain amount of prestige to a company.

Guanxi is also a very important concept in Chinese business. Roughly meaning “relationship” in English, the Pinyin (romanization of Chinese words) is increasingly being incorporated into English-language business practices here in China. Without Guanxi, many business transactions in China simply cannot take place. Quanxi describes an individual’s personal network and connection with other important individuals. At a certain time, an individual such as a businessman may need to reach out to a friend or family member for a favor. Take for example the wine company that Johnny’s friend’s friend, etc. owned. In order for that owner to successfully launch his business, garner clients and customers within the community, he needs to “scratch the back” of any friends and influential people in city that he knows. “Scratching the back” doesn’t necessarily imply giving money. Rather it can come in the form of respect and trust. Cultivating such relationships can take time and finesse.  Our wine owner has to show his appreciation for his local government official friends so that he can get necessary permits to open his store and garner customers. Local government officials take an active interest in the growth of companies which is tied in with economic growth of the community. Such local government officials may become major clients and accounts of the wine business and then help sell the wine to more individuals. Therefore, our friend the wine store owner must hold events such as banquets and fancy dinners in a hotel with entertainment and “important Western sales executives” to lavish and show appreciation to his sponsors and government officials.  

I’m learning that a Quanxi network can be quite intricate. Take for example Johnny’s aggressiveness with recruiting me for opening of the wine store. Although Johnny didn’t work for the wine seller, he could potentially benefit from knowing and helping the friend of the friend opening the business. Down the road when Johnny graduates from college and needs a job, he will already have a couple of points in the Guanxi book for having successfully recruited Westerners for wine events. Looking at it from that point of view, it makes sense why he was persistent and aggressive. He is likely under pressure and working on garnering his relationships right now for future job prospects and no doubt wants to make a favorable impression.   
At the end of the day, Quanxi may not seem vastly different from “networking” in the West or more crassly, the “Old boys club”. Some critics may think that it’s a dishonest and corrupt practice. Nevertheless, business practices and the long term success of a business in China depends on the very intricate personal relationship between individuals all the way down to the grassroots level. Although it may be seen as a time and cost-consuming practice, Chinese and foreign companies must practice it and it strengthens trust and relationships in the long run. 

For more information on Chinese business practices and Guanxi
-          Chinese Business Culture